San Francisco voters recall 3 school board members

In a recall election fueled by pandemic angst and anger, voters in San Francisco ousted three members of the Board of Education on Tuesday, closing a bitter chapter in city politics that had been plagued by infighting, accusations of racism and a wave of lawsuits.

More than 70% of voters backed each member’s recall when the first results were released just before 9 p.m. Pacific time, and a leader in the recall effort said victory was assured. The total number of votes constituted about a quarter of the registered voters in the city, and the turnout is not expected to be significantly higher.

The vote stripped Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga of their positions on the seven-person council, which Ms Lopez served as chair. They will be replaced by members chosen by Mayor London Breed.

The recall was a victory for parents who were furious that the district spent time deciding to rename a third of its schools last year instead of focusing on reopening them. It also seemed like a display of Asian American electoral power, a galvanizing moment for Chinese voters in particular who showed up in unusually high numbers for the election.

Echoing debates in other cities, many Chinese voters were furious when the school board introduced a lottery admissions system for Lowell High School, the district’s most prestigious institution, scrapping requirements primarily based about grades and test results. Last year, a judge ruled that the council violated procedures by making the change.

In a city that has more dogs than children, school elections in San Francisco have for decades been obscure sideshows of the most publicized political contests.

That changed with the coronavirus pandemic — data released by the district suggests remote learning has increased racial achievement gaps — and the flurry of controversy that has plagued the board.

The district made national headlines last year for its botched and, in some cases, historically inaccurate efforts to rename 44 public schools.

The targeted schools are named after a series of historical figures, including Abraham Lincoln and the three other presidents engraved on Mount Rushmore; Spanish conquerors such as Vasco Núñez de Balboa; John Muir, the naturalist and author; and Paul Revere, the figure of the Revolutionary War.

After a barrage of criticism, including from Ms Breed, the council suspended the name change process. A judge ruled that the board violated a California open meeting law in its proceedings.

Criticism of the council intensified, as signature-gathering for the recall effort was already underway, when controversial tweets written by Ms Collins, the council’s deputy chairman, were uncovered. In them, she said Asian Americans were like slaves who benefited from labor inside the home of a slave owner — a comparison that Asian American groups and many leaders of the city have described as racist.

The council voted to strip Ms. Collins of her vice presidency, prompting her to sue council and district members for $87 million. A judge dismissed the case.

David Lee, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, said the combination of the tweets and changes to admissions policies at Lowell have bolstered Asian American voters.

“It was an opportunity for the Chinese community to flex their muscles,” Lee said. “The community reaffirms itself.

Asian American voters had punched below their weight in San Francisco in recent years, making up about 18% of active voters in recent elections — well below their citywide share of 34%. But supporters of Tuesday’s recall election say Asian Americans played an outsized role.

Siva Raj, a San Francisco public school parent who helped lead the signature drive to put the recall election on the ballot, pointed to strong turnout in neighborhoods with large Asian populations as well as a relatively high return rate among people who applied for a Chinese – language ballot.

Ann Hsu, a San Francisco resident with two high school students in the public school system, helped enroll more than 500 Chinese residents in the months leading up to the election. Education, she said, was a galvanizing issue.

“It’s been ingrained in Chinese culture for thousands and thousands of years,” she said.

Ms. Hsu said she has seen some of the inner workings of the district in her role as president of a high school’s PTA as well as chair of a Citizenship Duty Oversight Committee, a body that oversees the district’s use of money raised through bonds. The oversight committee was formed last year after a whistleblower informed the city attorney’s office that the school district had failed to create the board, which is required by law.

“The board is incompetent,” Ms Hsu said.

Meredith W. Dodson, executive director of the San Francisco Parent Coalition, a group formed during the pandemic to pressure the district to reopen schools, called the reminder campaign a powerful show of parental activism.

“We can never go back to the world before where parents weren’t organized and raised their concerns together,” she said.

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